Silk Road visa liberalization paves the way for tourism boom in Central Asia

Planning a trip to visit the breathtakingly beautiful ancient Uzbek cities of the Silk Road? Maybe stopping by the wide boulevards of Kazakhstan’s former capital, Almaty, or the futuristic Astana? Now is the time to go. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have introduced a new Silk Road Visa agreement, which will allow foreign tourists visiting the two countries access to the other. The agreement currently only applies to these two largest Central Asian countries, but the visa liberalization could extend to include Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan; even Azerbaijan has signaled an interest to join the travel regime. Turkmenistan, still the most inaccessible of the Central Asian countries, is not expected to join any time soon.

Baiterek Tower, the center-point of Astana.

While Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan already offer visa-free entry to Americans and Europeans, all three have a strict visa regime in place for Chinese citizens. Since President Mirziyoyev came to power, Uzbekistan has been on a charm offensive for tourists, including the introduction of cheaper, faster e-visas in place of the notoriously bureaucratic and expensive visas before. Last week, the country announced that it will grant visa freedom to 41 countries, mostly western, effective next month (February 2019). These visa liberalization moves have resulted in a minor tourist uptick for the country. Uzbekistan, along with the region’s other countries, have realized that the majority of foreign tourists making the long-haul trip to the region have the potential to visit multiple sites rather than stay confined to a single country. In addition to tourism, the Silk Road visa could simplify business travel along the Chinese-sponsored Belt and Road, thereby increasing the connectivity among the Central Asian states, China, and the wider region.

The ancient Silk Road cities of Bukhara and Samarkand are renowned World Heritage Sites, famed for their beautiful architecture, signs of the region’s golden age. In the age when Medieval Europe was no more than a murky backwater, the Silk Road cities in Uzbekistan housed the famed artists and scholars of the time. The most ornate Koran school, Madrasahas of Samarkand, built in the 16th century, still rivals the most stunning of Renaissance architecture in Europe. Tourists from all around the world come and amaze at these historic treasures, and a visitor to Bukhara and Samarkand still enjoys relative calm compared to the bustle of European destinations. Uzbekistan is working to capitalize on this. In September 2018, the country was approved for an EBRD long-term loan to revamp a key hotel chain found along the Silk Road cities, Khiva Malika. The project proposal outlines the business’s objective to become more competitive and upgrade international standards for the region, part of the country’s overall objective to bring in more tourists and develop the area.

Until recently, Uzbekistan has claimed the annual number of tourists to exceed 2.5 million visitors. The figure is not high in comparison to the leading tourist destinations in the world, which are visited by dozens of millions of people every year, but the regionally high figure raised eyebrows amongst analysts. Uzbekistan’s ministry of tourism has revised their methodology in the last couple years, revealing that in 2017, the country was, in fact, visited by only slightly over 200,000 tourists, who stayed at hotels and used services related to leisure tourism. Previously, all international visitors, including the nationals of the other Central Asian states, many of them ethnic Uzbeks, visiting their families or doing business, were counted as tourists.

The new e-visa system, international advertising campaigns, more realistic statistics, and tourist development go hand-in-hand with the Silk Road visa to demonstrate Mirziyoyev’s government is serious about its goal of turning Uzbekistan into a noteworthy tourist destination. In 2018, largely because of the e-visa, the number of visitors was expected to rise to 350,000. The simplification of the entry procedures goes a long way, but obstacles for tourism still remain. Uzbekistan remains hard and expensive to reach from faraway destination. The low-budget Wizz Air now connects Kazakhstan’s capital Astana with European destinations, but the other Central Asian destinations remain services by the expensive flag-carriers. Tourism infrastructure remains largely underdeveloped across the region, and inconveniently, because of currency controls, in Uzbekistan, foreign bank cards can only be used at the branches of the National Bank of Uzbekistan.

The high speed Afrosiyob bullet train that connects Tashkent to Bukhara via Samarkand, cutting the train journey from the previous 7 hours to a bit over 3 hours (Tashkent-Bukhara)

A new player to the tourism game, Uzbekistan trails behind Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, which have for years now offered visa freedom to western visitors. Their official tourism figures, similarly to Uzbekistan’s, are inflated by sloppy methodology, which conflates all foreign visitors with leisure tourists, but even on that count they both host about twice the number of visitor compared to Uzbekistan. Kazakhstan has channeled some of its substantial oil wealth for the development of tourism around the Almaty area, which was one of the region’s main tourist destinations in Soviet times. Almaty competed with Beijing to host the 2022 Winter Olympics but lost in the final vote. Nevertheless, the county’s modern skiing resorts on the northern side of the Tian Shan mountain range offer slopes that could pass as Austrian Alpine resorts. Just across the border, in the less developed Kyrgyzstan, trekkers take in the still-serene wilderness and the scenery around Issyk-Kyl, the world’s tenth largest lake.

Central Asia still remains an obscure destination, attracting mostly the niche adventurer type. Far away, mysterious, marked by negative stereotypes, the region has an uphill struggle to tap into its potential. Last year, terrorists killed four foreign cyclists in Tajikistan, creating more international headlines about the dangers of the region than what the tourism ministries have been able to counter with their glossy advertisements. However, the steady increases in foreign tourism, lowering barriers to entry and increasing connectivity are slowly helping the region to tap into the tourism potential, which rests on the historical landmarks and natural beauty that far outshine the region’s reputation. Just few years ago, a western visitor to the region had to individually apply for expensive visas for each country. Starting from February 2019, most western tourists will have visa free access for up to a month, with access to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. For those interested in traversing the Ancient Silk Road from Europe to China, now only Iran and Turkmenistan remain unreachable. The rest are borders now opened to the west and to each other.